The ideas that lead to Sinn Féin are first propounded by the United Irishman newspaper and its editor, Arthur Griffith. An article by Griffith in that paper in March 1900 calls for the creation of an association to bring together the disparate Irish nationalist groups of the time and, as a result, Cumann na nGaedheal is formed at the end of 1900. Griffith first puts forward his proposal for the abstention of Irish members of parliament (MP) from the Parliament of the United Kingdom at the 1902 Cumann na nGaedheal convention. A second organisation, the National Council, is formed in 1903 by Maud Gonne and others, including Griffith, on the occasion of the visit of King Edward VII to Dublin. Its purpose is to lobby Dublin Corporation to refrain from presenting an address to the king. The motion to present an address is duly defeated, but the National Council remains in existence as a pressure group with the aim of increasing nationalist representation on local councils.
Griffith elaborates his policy in a series of articles in the United Irishman in 1904, which outline how the policy of withdrawing from the imperial parliament and passive resistance had been successfully followed in Hungary, leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and the creation of a dual monarchy, and proposes that Irish MPs should follow the same course. These are published later that year in a booklet entitled The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland. Also in 1904, Mary Ellen Butler, a friend of Griffith and cousin of Ulster Unionist Party leader Edward Carson, remarks in a conversation that his ideas are “the policy of Sinn Féin, in fact” and Griffith enthusiastically adopts the term. The phrase Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’ or ‘We Ourselves’) had been in use since the 1880s as an expression of separatist thinking, and was used as a slogan by the Gaelic League in the 1890s.
The first annual convention of the National Council on November 28, 1905 is notable for two things: the decision, by a majority vote (with Griffith dissenting), to open branches and organise on a national basis; and the presentation by Griffith of his ‘Hungarian’ policy, which is now called the Sinn Féin policy. This meeting is usually taken as the date of the foundation of the Sinn Féin party. In the meantime, a third organisation, the Dungannon Clubs, named after the Dungannon Convention of 1782, has been formed in Belfast by Bulmer Hobson, and it also considers itself to be part of ‘the Sinn Féin movement.’
By 1907, there is pressure on the three organisations to unite — especially from the United States, where John Devoy offers funding, but only to a unified party. The pressure increases when Charles Dolan, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP for North Leitrim, announces his intention to resign his seat and contest it on a Sinn Féin platform. On April 21, 1907, Cumann na nGaedheal and the Dungannon Clubs merge as the ‘Sinn Féin League.’ Negotiations continue until August when, at the National Council annual convention, the League and the National Council merge on terms favourable to Griffith. The resulting party is named Sinn Féin, and its foundation is backdated to the National Council convention of November 1905.
In the 1908 North Leitrim by-election, Sinn Féin secures 27% of the vote. Thereafter, both support and membership fall. Attendance is poor at the 1910 Ard Fheis, and there is difficulty finding members willing to take seats on the executive. While some local councillors are elected running under the party banner in the 1911 local elections, by 1915 the party is, in the words of one of Griffith’s colleagues, “on the rocks,” and so insolvent financially that it cannot pay the rent on its headquarters in Harcourt Street in Dublin.
Following the Easter Rising in 1916, Sinn Féin grows in membership, with a reorganisation at its Ard Fheis in 1917. Its split in 1922 in response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which leads to the Irish Civil War leads to the origins of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two parties which have since dominated Irish politics. Another split in the remaining Sinn Féin organisation in the early years of the Troubles in 1970 leads to the Sinn Féin of today, which is a republican, left-wing nationalist and secular party.
(Pictured: Arthur Griffith, founder (1905) and third president (1911-17) of Sinn Féin)